460degrees 08 Sep. 2021


NeuroInclusivity and Psychological Safety in the workplace

One of the worst aspects of a sustained crisis is that it has the effect of applying extreme pressure to people and systems to the point where human vulnerabilities are pushed to breaking point.  It is for this reason that pandemics often herald major social upheavals.  And COVID19 is no different.  We just have to look at the transformation of office workers to working remotely as one example of many to come over the coming years.

As organisations around the world work to accommodate for problems for the crisis at hand, the need for higher degrees of collaboration, communication and innovation have become a burning requirement for many.

Previously, many people have become complacent in the knowledge that whatever challenges they encounter, there was always going to be another group of people who they can copy their experience from and still kick goals.  This seemed to work reasonably well until we all faced a pandemic for which there was no lived experience from which they could imitate.

The need to adapt better to solve unique problems more effectively is quickly becoming an imperative for organisations as they face more extreme challenges as the pandemic continues.

It is at times like these that some organisations will react just as humans do in times of crisis.  Some organisations will fight, some will flee, and some will freeze.  And unfortunately for many businesses, their only option of these three options is to freeze (stay in a holding pattern and hope things will return to normal) or flee (close down).

So what are the major organisational lessons that can come from this?  For this article I will focus on one of the lessons everyone must have learnt by now.

When challenged with something new, we need diverse ways of thinking as a means to meet the challenge in your own unique way.  Having people whose only real skill is imitating what other people have done just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Unfortunately, many organisations have unwittingly excluded and weeded out people from their organisation who think and learn differently.

Some of these organisations are now desperately trying to get their hands on more unique people on the assumption that the magic will happen.  I am here to tell you something uncomfortable.  It won’t and it never could for these organisations unless they themselves dig much deeper than just thinking that “hiring the right people will solve the problems”.

In order to meet this challenge appropriately, it becomes unavoidable to ignore the impact culture has on your organisation’s outcomes.  The culture of organisations has often been assumed to be static and set by the senior leadership for everyone to follow.

We all have examples of this type of thinking, such as a directive coming down the line asking employees how “everyone must think like a leader”, or “work smarter, not harder”.  Another example is the statement that “everyone must support the other teams” – which is often met by your line manager with a rebuttal of “well, is the other team paying for your time?”. These examples are symptomatic of a fundamental ignorance of any substantiative understanding of what ‘culture’ means conceptually and/or practically.

During any single interaction, a set of cultural norms is developed as a part of that relationship, however fleeting the interaction between those parties might be. When I interact with someone, we develop a set of cultural of norms as a part of that relationship.  Each time another person joins that initial couplet, the culture changes yet again. Additionally, if one person in a group has a highly influential experience, this will likely have an effect on the team’s culture, as would the introduction of multiple new people to the team simultaneously, and especially if someone leaves the team.

Culture is not a static predefined policy, but a constantly evolving biproduct of people collaborating. It is not a top-down initiative, but a ground level initiative, but it will only develop into a healthy, productive culture if it resides within a psychologically safe environment.

So how can we cater for constantly evolving cultures to enable our people to get the best out of their work experience and tap into their innate potential?

One of the answers is by providing psychological safety.  By fostering an environment where everyone is included, respected and, most importantly, can be who they really are without fear of adverse consequences.

At this point you might (and quite reasonably) be thinking to yourself something like the following: “well that sounds great Jack, but how can this be practically achieved?”. Well, I am pleased to say that both the vehicle and tools for achieving this exist, and it is called “NeuroInclusivity”.

To understand NeuroInclusivity, we must first understand what the idea of Neurodiversity is, namely:

Neurodiversity is the “Biological diversity of human brains and minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species” – Nick Walker.

Neurodiversity is the recognition that Neurological differences are the result of Natural and Essential variations in the human genome.  This conceptualisation stands in contrast to and in opposition of the pathologisation of people who think and learn differently as being somehow defective versions of people who think and learn in similar ways to most people.

What this means is that by excluding people from teams because they think and learn differently is actually handicapping your team’s ability to cultivate unique and innovative solutions to problems.

From this, we can surmise that to embrace Neurodiversity, we need as many people as possible to recognise a few key points:

  • Everyone thinks and learns differently to each other to some extent.
  • The majority of people generally think and learn in similar ways to each other. These people are referred to as being Neurotypical.
  • A significant proportion of the population think and learn extremely differently to most other people.  These people are referred to as being Neurodivergent.
  • Neurodivergent people have capabilities which Neurotypical people do not and vice vera.
  • Neurodivergent people collaborate extremely well with other Neurodivergent people.
  • Neurotypical people collaborate extremely well with other Neurotypical people.
  • Collaboration between Neurodivergent and Neurotypical people can be problematic unless both groups acknowledge, understand and respect the need to bridge communication.
  • Neurodivergent people are inherently required to operate in Neurotypical terms.  As a result, many organisations are not optimised to cater for the needs of neurodivergent people.
  • By embracing Neurodiversity, organisations are, in fact, embracing real diversity from every dimension.  By focusing on invisible differences rather than the physically obvious, people are forced to think more in terms of an individual’s capabilities rather than the image or impression which can be misleading.

Focusing on the ways people think and learn, rather than what is visible, will undermine other forms of bias and discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality and any other conformity-based illusions. After all, what matters is the contribution an individual makes, not how conformative their characteristics may be.

Instead of us thinking about whether a person will “fit in with the team”, we need to focus more on how the team can adapt and incorporate very different people into the team.  This is the essence of NeuroInclusivity.

After presenting the idea of Neurodiversity internally within 460degrees, a lot of interest and understanding has come to the fore. I am pleased to say Neurodiversity is now a core aspect of 460degrees, mission and strategy with full support to evolve the culture further.

As we have explored this topic through a sociocultural lens, some core truths have been reinforced and other new ones have come to light.  Right from the start, it was apparent that what we are really dealing with is the continued development of a NeuroInclusive culture.

So, the challenge posed comes down to this simple question:

“How can we ensure each individual is not only accepted but also has their needs accommodated by the broader group without the individual requiring an explanation or feeling the need to mask who they really are?”

The answer is as complex as the unique groups of people organisations are presently trying to support.

While an understanding of Neurodiversity is an essential driver for making accommodations, we are really talking about “NeuroInclusion”.

NeuroInclusion is the act of bridging the barriers which exist between people of different neurotypes.

Currently, most heavy lifting required to bridge those barriers is left solely to people who come from the people in minority groups. This is not only unfair but also leads to overwhelmingly negative outcomes in the form of burnout and higher risks of miscommunication.

Many people feel pressured to mask who they really are at work and within society just to survive. Whilst there is anything wrong with who we are, a lack of understanding of our differences can lead to extremely detrimental outcomes.

The principle of accommodating the needs of different people doesn’t only apply to Neurodivergent people, but it also applies to many other people. For example, the introvert in an extrovert dominated environment, the parent who needs a flexible schedule to take their children to or from school, or any number of other requirements.

So, how can we establish an evolving, open culture of understanding and psychological safety to support everyone’s wide array of preferences, needs, experiences and the requisite accommodations?

At 460degrees, we’ve committed to the idea that whenever the individuals in a group change, this should prompt the revision and the expansion and/or adjustments to the group’s NeuroInclusive imperatives in order recalibrate, preserve and enhance the groups capabilities. These imperatives provide a defined set of values which work for the combination of individuals within the team.  These imperatives are selected, adjusted and supplemented by the teams themselves.  In essence, each team selects, evolves and defines their own imperatives to reflect their own values and their own NeuroInclusive needs.

If the team identifies a new imperative, it gets added to the list and becomes available for other teams to select.  None of these are hard and fast rules, but simply an opportunity for the team to agree on and work toward a set of values they wish to have in their work environment.

An example of a NeuroInclusive imperative is the “assumption of good faith”; in the event that anyone does harm to another person, the default assumption should be that there was no intention to cause harm. Of course, if it becomes clear they did mean harm, that is a different story. However, most often when these situations occur, they are triggered accidentally and without malicious intent.

The imperatives chosen by a particular group are purely within the control of each individual within that group, however each individual must be comfortable with the imperatives selected by other people within the group. In other words, each culture is as unique as the makeup of the lived experience and values of every team member. And this will change and evolve over time.

Of course, this approach flies directly in the face of the standard operating procedure (SOP) for the fabrication of an organisational culture. For example, the act of executives getting together in a room and bashing out some token cultural values statements. But, let’s face it, when has this Standard Operating Procedure  ever worked?

At 460degrees we have relieved the field manual from its duties. We view our co-creator approach as being fundamental to providing a psychologically safe work environment for everyone.

For more information on the 460degrees NeuroInclusivity initiative, feel free to contact us.  We are keen to work with other groups who wish to tackle these issues.

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